I first started to see blue and green veins dancing across my legs when I was 15 years old. I felt embarrassment but no physical pain, so I kept calm and reassured myself that one day I would have them fixed and my legs would look perfect again.
Almost 20 years later, in 2015, I was six months pregnant with my second child. The veins in my legs became so swollen and painful that my doctor ordered me to take a medical leave from my Toronto media job and sent me for an ultrasound to check for blood clots. As I sat in the waiting room, sweating in my opaque black compression stockings, all I could think about was getting a pair of the cooler toeless hose worn by the woman sitting beside me. I was relieved when my results came back clear. For the rest of my pregnancy, I was put on a circulation-boosting regimen, which consisted of wearing my incredibly uncomfortable support hose, walking a lot and elevating my legs. I did this faithfully until my son was born that June.
But as the months rolled along with a newborn and a toddler, I started to experience heaviness and aching in my legs, particularly my right one. I began to wonder if I had prematurely thrown away my support hose. After all, I had three key risk factors in developing venous disease—a potentially dangerous condition in which blood pools in the veins and doesn’t efficiently travel back to the heart. The first was genetics: My grandmother suffered from varicose veins and had hers successfully stripped when she was 52. The second factor was the temporary pressure put on my veins from my pregnancies. And third, I spent long periods sitting at a desk, putting yet more pressure on my veins and causing their valves to weaken. My legs didn’t stand a chance.
By the spring of 2016, my right leg looked very angry, with bulging veins splayed across my outer thigh. Wearing a swimsuit or shorts was out of the question. At night, it was painful for me to sleep on that side.
My family doctor referred me to a vascular surgeon. I researched the various vein treatment options she offered and settled on radio-frequency ablation, which seemed like the least invasive and most effective option. During the procedure, the surgeon uses the heat from radio-frequency energy to contract the vein walls, causing them to collapse and close. Blood naturally redirects to nearby healthy veins, and the treated veins are gradually absorbed into the surrounding tissue.
The 90-minute procedure was elective and cost $3,000 per leg. Even though I was given a numbing agent, I could still feel the catheter being inserted and pulled from my knee to my upper thigh. When it was over, my leg looked swollen but vein-free. I was elated and started fantasizing about cute cut-off denim shorts.
A week later, the surgeon’s office called to tell me they had found something during the post-procedure checkup and encouraged me to get another ultrasound. It turned out I was one of those rare patients who developed blood clots after the surgery. The following day I met with a hematologist, who told me I should have never been discharged from the hospital—one blood clot could have easily turned into life-threatening deep-vein thrombosis. The doctor injected a blood thinner directly into my stomach and prescribed three months of oral blood-thinning medication. To add insult to injury, over the next two months, my varicose veins started to reroute and appear again.
The procedure hadn’t worked, and I was left with bulging veins, permanent bruising and superficial phlebitis (a visible inflammation of the veins just below the surface of the skin). Oh, and the aching was back, too. Although I took great comfort in the fact that I’d cheated death, I saw a life of hiding my veins under Lululemon leggings awaiting me.
A year after the ordeal, my vascular surgeon offered to fix my veins once more—this time, for free. I decided I wasn’t willing to take the risk again. Today, I am proactive about my vein health. I wear non-restrictive clothing (pants have to be super soft and stretchy—I often size up) and apply a cream containing witch hazel, which seems to help relieve some symptoms. I’ve also bought myself new compression stockings; I wear them when I fly. When shorts season rolls around, I get an organic spray tan, which is an easy way to camouflage veins.
More than anything, this experience has taught me to embrace my imperfections. Like the inevitability of fine lines and grey hair, my varicose veins are part of my unique aging process, and I’m okay with that.